“The Louvre is not in Paris. It’s in Abu Dhabi.”
So said 2008 Pritzker Prize winning architect Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA, at the National Building Museum this week. I’m inclined to believe him. If anyone can figure out how to manage the geographic and cultural dislocation of applying the name of the world’s most famous museum to a place continents away, it’s probably Nouvel. His lecture (part of the Building Museum’s Spotlight on Design series) reaffirmed his status as a masterfully expressive contextualist whose buildings are nearly self-contained geographical, historical, and cultural lesson plans.
As a student in the 1960s, Nouvel talked of being baffled by the aesthetically-restrictive creep of International Style Modernism. Again and again, the French architect came back to the fundamental value of understanding the subtle nuances of site specificity: recognition of history without imitation or pastiche, understanding of culture without caricature, whether he’s building within his own culture or straddling the aesthetic politics of globalized art, as he’s done with his Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi. He said he could never build the same building in two different places, and the proof is in the portfolio. Nouvel has yet to design two buildings that share any kind of formal language.
At his Quai Branly Museum (established by former French President Jacques Chirac to exhibit African, Asian, and Oceanic Art by native peoples) in Paris, Nouvel used bright reds, oranges, and yellows; dense landscaped gardens; and irregular circulation patterns to complement the exuberant immediacy of the pieces on display. It’s primal without being exploitative; mysterious without being a theme park ride. It’s nothing like the MoMA, and some critics took Nouvel down a notch for it.
Whatever. “I thought it was a crazy idea to put these objects in the most Modern, occidental architecture—with white walls and so on,” he said.
Across the world in Minneapolis, Nouvel focused on the fading industrial infrastructure that nursed that Midwestern river city to eminence. In his design for the Guthrie Theater, Nouvel adapted the design language of the mill silos and smokestacks that surround the theater on the banks of the Mississippi River. By piecing the theater together out of abstracted, expertly proportioned echoes of these forms, he reaffirmed the city’s industrial vitality. His Louvre in Abu Dhabi, as well as the project that introduced him to the world, the Arab World Institute in Paris, are both heavily invested in the kind of geometric abstraction that traditional Arabian art is based on. The Abu Dhabi building is essentially a seaside, light-perforated dome that sits on top of a pixilated constellation of rectilinear masses.
With his design for the Tour de Verre, a 75-story skyscraper that will rise next door to the MoMA, Nouvel showed that he can look into the history of architecture for a design as well as he can interrogate the ancestral culture of Polynesia or 19th century Midwesterners. It’s another iteration of Nouvel’s minimalist tendencies for “almost nothing”—skin and bones in the classically Modernist sense, undeniably a reference to the history of New York Modernism, the Seagram Building, the Lever House, the United Nations Headquarters, etc. “It’s steel, it’s gray, it’s New York,” Nouvel said.
But it’s not dour. Nouvel is a confessed hedonist. The steel structure, dogmatically expressed in the façade, slices and skips across the needle-shaped building with stylishly capricious power. Such deep synthesis between architecture and history seems to offer a vision of what Postmodernism could have been.
Just as globalism has given him the opportunity to build all over the world (his firm is working on dozens of projects across North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa), Nouvel seems to have become more aware of the positive and negative ways this worldwide virus works with architecture to affect the globe.
“I am afraid that the world is getting smaller and smaller everyday. [When you go to a new] city, you are always in the same building, always in the same place,” he said. “Every architecture is an occasion to extend the world—to create small worlds. And every time you have to create the roots, the links of this architecture with history and geography.”
Certainly, globalism at the hands of Jean Nouvel is quite different from globalism at the hands of a multinational corporation, a sovereign government, or a popular Web site. His goal is the use globalism to reaffirm the inherent identity of every place for which he designs. One of globalism's advantages, as Nouvel acknowledged, is that it puts oceans of information at our fingertips, and this aids the kind of cultural telepathy that his architecture relies on. So he’s on both sides of the globalism argument. And he’s got the Louvre at his home in Paris, and the one that will rise out of the sea in Abu Dhabi. And a Pritzker. Sounds like it's been a good year for Jean Nouvel.